Original Research–Good or Bad?

I recently rewatched Julia, the 1977 film starring Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave.  It is based on a chapter in Lillian Hellman‘s memoir, Pentimento: A Book of Portraits.  That chapter tells the (probably fictional) story of Hellman’s longtime friendship with Julia, a girl from a wealthy family who grows up to fight fascism in Europe in the 1930s.  I loved this book when I read it in high school and I went on to read nearly all of Hellman’s other work as well as several biographies.

As I watched the movie, several questions occurred to me and so, being a modern media consumer, I immediately searched for answers online.  This search led me to Wikipedia, which for me is a fine source of answers to the kinds of questions I had.  In fact, I use Wikipedia all the time for this sort of thing.  I was surprised then to find the following qualifying statement on the entry for Pentimento:

This section may contain original research.  Please improve it by verifying the claims made and adding references. Statements consisting only of original research may be removed.

As I said, I use Wikipedia a lot.  And I have never seen this qualifying statement before.  I think this statement implies that original research is somehow bad.  I don’t think that’s what the folks at Wikipedia mean.  At least, I hope it’s not what they mean.  So I decided to look into the statement a little more deeply.  There are a couple of parts of the statement that are interesting.   

First, the words “may contain” are in bold.  I think that’s supposed to indicate that the section or may or may not contain original research.  It’s clear that articles in Wikipedia should NOT contain original research but it isn’t clear why. 

I then checked to see how “original research” is defined by Wikipedia and found this on their policy pages: “The term ‘original research’ refers to material—such as facts, allegations, ideas, and stories—not already published by reliable sources.”  How would one determine whether a particular section contained “original research” or not?  Probably by looking for references to “reliable sources” in the section.  Therefore, if a section doesn’t contain references (or not enough references), it might be difficult to determine whether that’s because the author simply didn’t include references to other available sources, the work is based on “original research” or the work is completely fabricated.  Or, I guess, it could be some combination of the three reasons.  So I guess that’s why “may contain” is in bold.  The lack of references could mean any number of things.

The next part of the qualifying statement is even more interesting to me.  “Please improve it by verifying the claims made and adding references.”  This statement implies that “original research” is somehow less valid than work that has been taken from another source.  Again, I doubt that’s what the Wikipedia folks mean. 

So I continued to investigate their policies and found this: “Wikipedia does not publish original thought: all material in Wikipedia must be attributable to a reliable, published source. Articles may not contain any new analysis or synthesis of published material that serves to advance a position not clearly advanced by the sources.”  Because of this policy against publishing original thought, to add references to an article or section of an article does indeed “improve” it by making it conform more closely to Wikipedia’s standards for what makes a good article.

This policy against publishing original thought explains the rest of the qualifying statement.  My investigations into Wikipedia’s policies found policies about what it means to “verify” statements in an article.  This is important because Wikipedia says that included articles must be verifiable (which is not the same as “true”), that is, users of Wikipedia must be able to find all material in Wikipedia elsewhere, in reliable , published sources.  And yes, Wikipedia explains what they mean by “reliable.”  That discussion is not easily summarized (and isn’t the point of this post) so anyone who is interested can look here

My surprise concerning the qualifying statement boils down to wording and I think the wording of the statement needs to be changed.  Currently, it implies that original research is bad.  But through my investigation, I’ve decided that Wikipedia probably means that articles should not contain unverified, unsourced statements.  Such statements could come from author sloppiness, original research or outright fabrication.  In any case, they should not be part of Wikipedia’s articles. 

Of course, I haven’t discussed whether the policy of not publishing original thought is an appropriate policy or not.  I have mixed feelings about this.  But that’s a subject for another post.

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